RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Despite the fact that economists are saying that the recession is officially over, times still feel pretty tough, and few of us are ready to throw caution to the wind and start emptying our wallets on fancy clothes and gourmet food. A survey published in early 2009 even found that people were saving money during the recession by spending less on healthy food and more on, of all things, hotdogs! But you don't have to live on white bread and wieners to save money; eating healthy foods can be just as cost-efficient. Recent research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating healthy foods on a budget is as easy as replacing some red meat with less-expensive whole grains and beans.
THE DETAILS: The authors used data collected from food frequency questionnaires submitted in 2002 as part of the long-running Nurse's Health Study. In total, they had information from 78,191 adults in their late 60s, and living with a spouse. A good portion of the adults were also defined as overweight, based on body mass index (BMI). The amount each person spent on food was estimated based on prices in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food-cost database.
Each participant was ranked according to something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which is basically a measure of how well each adhered to a diet of foods that have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases: fruits, vegetables, nuts, soy, beans, lean meats and fish, whole grains, alcohol, and healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The range of index scores in this study was 30 for people with unhealthy diets to 60 for people with the healthiest diets. People with low AHEI scores—those with less-healthy diets—spent an average of $3.72 per day on food, while people with the healthiest scores spent $4.62 per day, a difference of 24 percent. But the authors found that food spending wasn't always dependent upon how healthy people's diets were. For instance, some people with the healthiest diets managed to spend as little as $3.48 per day, while others with the unhealthiest spent as much as $5.75.
They also estimated what people should spend their money on, if they want to get into that group of high-scoring healthy eaters. Spending more money on fruits and vegetables helps, raising the score by about 7 points. But every dollar spent on whole grains boosts the AHEI score by nearly 18 points, and every dollar spent on nuts and beans boosts the score by 19 points. Conversely, every dollar spent on red or processed meat lowers the score by 10 points.
WHAT IT MEANS: By simply redirecting your food dollars from meat to beans, you could save some serious cash and improve your diet at the same time. And, the authors write, the increases in AHEI score you could achieve by spending more on whole grains, nuts, and beans could lead to a 25 percent reduced risk in cardiovascular disease. By contrast, taking medications such as statins (those popular cholesterol-lowering drugs) lowers your risk by 20 to 27 percent, at a cost of $830 per year. Save money on food and on health care? What's not to like?